James Ward at The Dublin Review of Books:
William Blake sets out his vision of the universe in the volumes known as his prophetic books. Botched creation, cruelty and liberation are the obsessive themes of his cosmogony, focused through filters of sexuality and gender difference. Famously described by Northrop Frye as being “in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry” in English, these books still go largely unread. But they were not really designed to be read according to conventional practice of deriving meaning from lines and blocks of text. Instead, on every page, serpentine lines writhe, coil and contort across fields of spectacular colour to form bodies and letters which combine to remind us that to “illustrate” means to make words lustrous. Much as “watching” falsely imputes careful monitorship to our consumption of television, “reading” hardly seems an adequate name for what goes on when we look at these works. Even though comics and graphic novels have made the pleasure a familiar one, there is still no good word in English for the simultaneous comprehension of words and pictures, which underlines the exceptional originality of what Blake was doing back at the turn of the eighteenth century. Hand-inscribed, chemically etched and mechanically printed, Blake’s visual-verbal poems represent a heroic but thankless effort to divert the historic course of book technology and propel the illuminated manuscript into the age of print. They could in theory have sold by the thousand but the intensity of labour involved in their production, the obtuse incomprehension of contemporaries and the indifference of the public meant that few copies were produced, and fewer bought, in his lifetime.
Even after his acceptance as a major poet (which came as late as the 1950s), reading Blake in anthologies or paperback classics feels wrong because the images are either entirely omitted or confined to a few grainy reproductions, with the unified whole inaccessible until very recently to those lacking privileged access to scholarly archives or expensive facsimile editions.